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3 important UHD TV developments to watch in 2015

These new features can't be added to last year's Ultra HD sets

Published: January 16, 2015 10:00 AM
Does your UHD TV look this good?

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Did you buy an Ultra HD TV last year? Are you enjoying it? Will you still be able to enjoy it knowing that it probably lacks three features that are being included on many new UHD TVs this year—which, by the way will probably be significantly less expensive than the set you bought even a few months ago?

As we've written before, the consumer electronics industry rewards procrastinators, usually with lower prices but sometimes with new features and capabilities that weren't available just a short time ago.

Based on what we saw at CES 2015, this will again be the case this year. But while we often see TVs that can be upgraded to new features via firmware upgrades, that won't be true of three new, important developments built into 2015 sets.

Here are three reasons you may regret buying that UHD TV last year:

Looking for a new HDTV? Check out our TV buying guide and Ratings.

1. Wider color gamuts

One of the biggest developments in TVs this year will be the ability to display a wider, richer color gamut, beyond what's previously been available on TVs other then OLED TVs. During CES, we saw LG Electronics, Samsung, TCL, and others show TVs that included quantum dots that can display more saturated, vibrant colors.

Other companies, including LG, Panasonic, and Sony (we believe) are using new phosphor-coated LED backlights that can also achieve wider color gamuts, though not quite to the degree of quantum dots.

True, there's very little content that can take advantage of the new color specs, but we believe that will come later this year, with several streaming services, including M-Go and Netflix, as well as new 4K Blu-ray discs, promising to support wider colors. Your older set probably won't be able to take advantage of the wider range of colors.

2. High Dynamic Range

Another TV buzz phrase at CES was high dynamic range, or HDR, which refers to the difference between the very brightest and darkest images that a TV can produce. TVs with HDR can display more dramatic, high-contrast pictures, with brighter whites and deeper blacks that really pop off the screen.

Most of the major brands at CES—LG, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony—talked about or showed sets with this capability. Many are calling it by some proprietary name—LG uses the Wide Color LED name, Panasonic's is called Dynamic Range Remaster, Samsung uses the SUHD moniker, while Sony's is dubbed X-tended Dynamic Range. Dolby has its own HDR technology, called Dolby Vision, which it's hoping TV manufacturers will adopt.

Right now, though, there's no single standard for HDR, and there are several different HDR proposals.

Not surprisingly, there's also very limited content. Warner Bros. says it will offer a few movies encoded with Dolby Vision later this year for TVs that have a built-in Dolby Vision decoder, and at CES Samsung said it was working with Fox for movies that could take advantage of Samsung's HDR technology. Netflix and M-Go have pledged HDR content later this year, possibly supporting a few different HDR formats.

Also, the 4K Ultra Blu-ray discs and players coming late this year will incorporate HDR, which is part of the new standard.

3. VP9

Almost all TVs now have built-in HEVC decoders. HEVC is a new, more efficient compression scheme used by Amazon, M-Go, Netflix, and others that allows higher-resolution 4K video to be sent to TVs. But Google has decided to use its own compression scheme, called VP9, for 4K YouTube videos.This actually requires a new chipset to be built into the TV, so it can't be added via firmware.

While many 2015 sets will have it, no older sets do, as far as we know. So while earlier UHD TVs can play regular YouTube videos, they won't be able to play the higher-resolution 4K ones. And it appears that Google has plans to make YouTube a more serious streaming service beyond just user-generated videos; if so, having VP9 decoders in a TV could be an important feature.

But one more thing early adopters should know: Since there are still no standards for wide color gamuts or HDR, it's conceivable that you could buy a UHD TV with wider color and HDR—and then see content companies choose a different standard later. That's why at CES the UHD Alliance was announced. The group, comprising some heavyweight consumer electronics companies (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony), movie studios (Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros.,) plus Dolby, Technicolor, Netflix, and DirecTV, was formed to help promote baseline standards, presumably so that consumers can feel comfortable buying devices that will be compatible with the content, regardless of which HDR or wide-color flavor is being used.

While we're really excited about these improvements to TV picture quality, the uncertainty about standards makes us think that it still makes sense to hold off getting a new UHD TV until later in the year, when we think the industry will be closer to settling on color and HDR standards. And as an added bonus: Sets will probably be a bit cheaper then anyway.

—James K. Willcox

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